The Alcis: the Divine Twins Among the Germanic Peoples

The Alcis are a pair of twin brother gods that were worshiped among the early Germanic peoples. They are first mentioned in Cornelius Tacitus’ 1st century work Germania, where he writes,

The Naharvali proudly point out a grove associated with an ancient worship. The presiding priest dresses like a woman; but the deities are said to be the counterpart of our Castor and Pollux. This indicates their character, but their name is the Alcis. There are no images, and nothing to suggest that the cult is of foreign origin; but they are certainly worshiped as young men and as brothers.

(Note: exactly what “dresses like a woman” meant is open to debate, ie. Roman filter)

The early comparison here between the Germanic Alcis and the Hellenic Dioscuri, ie. Castor and Pollux, is of course no idle one as modern Indo-European studies prove. The “Divine Twins” are believed to be very ancient, forming part of the original Proto-Indo-European religion (4th millennium Before Common Era) and remembered in their descendant cultures as, not only the Germanic Alcis and Hellenic Dioscuri (sons of God), but also as the Vedic Ashvins, the Lithuanian Asvieniai (cognate to Ashvins), the Latvian Dieva Deli (sons of God), etc. The name Alcis itself is of obscure etymology. Some link it to the word elk, while others (more insightfully IMO) link it to a group of words springing from the Proto-Indo-European *alk-, and the ideas of “sacred space” (eg. Old English – ealh) and “protection” (Old English – ealgian).

One of the most enduring features of the Divine Twins is their association with the sun-goddess, and centuries before Tacitus we find “them” depicted on the rock-art of the Nordic Bronze Age (1,800 BCE to 500 BCE).

alcissunship

We likewise have them depicted in two of the Grevensvaenge figurines which date from the late Nordic Bronze Age.

grevensvaenge

Other parts of the “ensemble” have since been lost but were sketched by the original archaeologists upon or soon after discovery. Here is the sketch …

grevensv

Based upon such rock carvings as this (note the “acrobat”(?) above the boat) …

grevensvae

… some believe that the original Grevensvaenge ensemble might have looked something like this …

alcisbronzeage

This age also witnessed numerous paired sacrifices of lur-horns, battle axes horned helmets, etc.

Bronze_Age_Helmets,_Nationalmuseet_Copenhagenlurhorns

As shown within the greater Indo-European context, the Divine Twins are depicted either as youths and brothers, or as horses … or even as horseheaded brothers in Vedic myth! Tacitus further comments in Germania, “They like the old and well-known money, coins milled, or showing a two-horse chariot.”

alciscoin

This draws our mind back to the famous “Trundholm Sun Chariot” of the Nordic Bronze Age (image below). It’s wheels are functional and it is believed that it’s brightside represented the sun being drawn through the heavens east to west, while it’s “darkside” represented movement through the underworld and a west to east movement.

Solvogn

The connection of the Alcis with horses and chariots, their closeness to mankind, highlights another observation noted by Tacitus regarding the Germanic tribes,

“It is peculiar to this people to seek omens and monitions from horses. Kept at the public expense, in these same woods and groves, are white horses, pure from the taint of earthly labour; these are yoked to a sacred cart, and accompanied by the priest and the king, or chief of the tribe, who note their neighings and snortings. No species of augury is more trusted, not only by the people and by the nobility, but also by the priests, who regard themselves as the ministers of the gods, and the horses as acquainted with their will.”

We also find this interesting piece of lore as Tacitus ties up his survey of Germania,

“Beyond the Suiones (the Swedes) we find another sea, sluggish and almost stagnant. This sea is believed to be the boundary that girdles the earth because the last radiance of the setting sun lingers on here till dawn, with a brilliance that dims the stars. Popular belfef adds that you can hear the sound he makes as he rises from the waves and can see the shape of his horses and the rays on his head.”

The following image (below) is of the Alcis as depicted on Gallehus horn B (Denmark, 5th century CE). The horn was most likely used for ceremonial libations, and a chain would have originally linked the two brothers together, in a manner reminiscent of the dokana (or even chariot horses!). The dokana was the “cultic symbol” of the Divine Twins among the Graeco-Romans; two upright beams linked by two parallel beams. This represents the essential unity of the two.

hornalcis

Among the Spartans, the Dioscuri were associated with the custom of dual kingship, the rule of brothers. As one went on campaigns, the other would remain to uphold the tribe. Mention of the custom of dual kingship among the Germanic tribes comes as early as Tacitus, and continued well into the Migration Age; a warrior-king and a priest-king. While there are many examples of dual kingships among the early Germanic peoples, the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britannia stand out as archetypcal, in that their names are Hors and Hengist … both of which are words for horse in Old English. Keep them in mind. Here is a depiction of the Divine Twins in Anglo-Saxon art (below). Note their horned helms with a mind toward their Bronze Age depictions.

anglosaxonalcis

While belief in the Alcis may have reached it’s height over the course of the Nordic Bronze Age, the commentary of Tacitus and such examples of Anglo-Saxon art as the above show that, in some manner, the belief nevertheless persisted over the Iron Age and into the Migration Age. In fact, it did not stop there.

The image that follows (below) shows a twin horse “pendant”(?) found in the temple area of the early Viking Age settlement of Tisso, Denmark. Incidentally, the name Tisso means Tyr’s Lake … while the name Tyr means God (rooted in the idea of the radiant heavens) and is cognate to such other Indo-European god-names as the Sanskrit Dyaus, the Greek Zeus, Latin Jupiter, Lithunian Dievas, etc. It is seen in both Dioscuri (Sons of God/Zeus) and Dieva Deli (Sons of God), the Proto-Germanic form of which would have been the pluralized version of Jacob Grimm’s reconstructed *Tiwisko (Son of Tiw, Tyr).

alcis divine twins

Here is another Viking Age artifact from Bornholm, Denmark …

alcis2

And here is a reproduction of a 11th century Rus find …

ruseleventhcentury

One might even see some memory of the Alcis in the Ales Stenar of early Viking Age Sweden; which was oriented for the winter solstice and who’s customary name might indeed be related to the aforementioned alhs.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the memory of the Alcis endured in the surviving mythology of the North Germanic tribes, the Eddas, where we read “Up shall rise All-Swift and Early-Awake, hungry, to haul the Sun” and “But the gods became wroth at this arrogance, took both the brother and the sister, set them up in heaven, and made Sun drive the horses that draw the car of the sun … <snip> … these horses hight Arvak (Early Awake) and Alsvid (All-swift). Under their withers the gods placed two wind-bags to cool them

SunStoneGotland

Havor, Gotland

They are also remembered in North Germanic myth as Skinfaxi (Shining Mane) and Hrimfaxi (Frosty Mane), the horses that pull the chariots of Day and Night. In this we find a memory of the notion that one brother was (originally) mortal and the other immortal, and that they spend equal time in the heavens and in the underworld … not to mention the notion allegedly behind the Trundholm Chariot, where one horse-brother carries the sun through the heavens from day break, and the other takes over at nightfall to draw the sun through the underworld.

The Divine Twins are remembered as threshold guardians. As mentioned above, the very name Alcis is thought to go back to a root meaning “protection”, and particularly in regards to “sacred space”. It seems quite likely that this “threshold into the sacred” is what is behind the kenning “Delling’s Door” in the Eddaic myths. This association with thresholds is preserved in the horseheaded gables found in the architecture of Northern Germany and the Baltic coast. In Northern Germany these gables were referred to as “Hors and Hengist” up until the 19th century.

cropped-alcis1.jpg

And this custom of looking to the Alcis to ward the sanctity of either temple or home continued on unto this day in the form of the horseshoe hung above the door; which parallels the NW European nautical custom of nailing a horseshoe to the main mast of a ship for protection and the ancient and enduring association of the Divine Twins as the protector of sailors, eg. Saint Elmo’s fire.

Horseshoe_lucky_on_door

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “The Alcis: the Divine Twins Among the Germanic Peoples

  1. Pingback: The Alcis: the Divine Twins Among the Germanic Peoples « WiccanWeb

  2. Pingback: Stuck In My Head #9: Blonde Redhead, Brandi Carlile, and the Archetype of the Divine Twins | OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

  3. Konrad

    Fascinating article! I was wondering what the source was for this:
    “And this custom of looking to the Alcis to ward the sanctity of either temple or home continued on unto this day in the form of the horseshoe hung above the door; which parallels the NW European nautical custom of nailing a horseshoe to the main mast of a ship for protection and the ancient and enduring association of the Divine Twins as the protector of sailors, eg. Saint Elmo’s fire.”

    Like

    Reply
    1. jameybmartin Post author

      Hey Konrad! Thanks for the compliment! Regarding the horseshoe, this is my own deduction drawn from the association of the Divine Twins with horses of course, but also the protection of temple, home, and seafarers, and the use of the horseshoe (among NW Euro-descended folk) as luck/protection for both the home and ship. There is unfortunately no source the explicitly makes the connection.

      Like

      Reply
  4. Petter

    Yes, nice article! The subject has interested me for some time, so I hope you will continue to explore it (as with the article on axes). What you’ve written so far is in line with my own conclusions, and from what I can tell based on the same sources/facts, but you seem to know more about this. Keep it coming 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  5. Sunny Singh

    Amazing post! I learned a lot.

    I still feel like I’m not completely understanding the purpose and symbolism of the divine twins. They are almost always young or associated with horses, this shows me that vitality and virility are important. That they are associated horses yolked to the sun shows that they are associated with the cycles of time. But what I dont understand is why they are twins?

    Like

    Reply
    1. jameybmartin Post author

      The essential unity of the duality of all things … night and day, winter and summer, death and life, mortality and immortality, warrior-king and priest-king … even brother-sister, male-female, as we see connotated in Vedic Yama and Yami or the Eddic Frey and Freyja.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s